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Syria loyalists in Damascus cheered by Qusair victory

RebellionsNational GovernmentPoliticsUnrest, Conflicts and WarBombingsBashar AssadReligion and Belief

DAMASCUS, Syria — After two years of grinding conflict, they are talking victory in Mazzeh Jabal 86, a gritty urban hillside where narrow alleys are festooned with jury-rigged electrical cables and testimonials to the "martyrs" lost fighting for the government of President Bashar Assad.

Televisions were tuned Thursday to images of troops advancing through the rubble of Qusair, which had been a rebel logistics hub for more than a year before being overrun this week by the Syrian army and allies from Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

While rebels tried to regroup and foreign governments focused on the expanding role of the Hezbollah militant group, the victory in Qusair resonated deeply in government strongholds here in the capital.

"We never thought of defeat; now we know the final triumph is coming," said a man who identified himself as Ali. He was standing with a group of young men outside his vegetable stand in Mazzeh Jabal 86, a working-class enclave where images of Assad and his late father gaze from buildings.

A few yards from where they were standing, a rebel car bomb exploded in November, killing more than a dozen people and destroying apartment buildings and shops.

The victory in Qusair was one of a string of recent battlefield successes that has not only improved the government's strategic position, but also boosted morale among loyalists in the capital and elsewhere. Government officials called the Qusair campaign a "strategic turning point" in the war against rebels trying to overthrow Assad.

However, rebel forces still control vast stretches of northern and eastern Syria. They operate in central Syria and maintain a foothold in the suburbs of Damascus.

The thud of military artillery rounds still resounds in the capital, and ubiquitous checkpoints clog the traffic. The threat of car bombs and mortar rounds from rebels based in nearby suburbs is constant. An underlying tension belies everyday signs of normality.

But residents in various districts under government control made it clear that Assad still maintains considerable popular support, his backing seemingly bolstered by the military advances and reports of rebel atrocities. Instead of weakening resolve, the lengthy conflict may have hardened solidarity among those who view the president as holding back a wave of Islamic extremists funded by Turkey, Arab states and the West.

"Now that we have closed the Qusair front, other fronts will follow," predicted Anas, an antiques merchant in the Old City just across from the landmark Umayyad Mosque, who displayed his collection of daggers to visitors, bemoaning the lack of tourists since the revolt broke out. "This so-called revolution is not of our making."

In the Jaramana district, one of a number of neighborhoods that have set up "self-defense" committees to keep out rebel car bombers and attackers, a former law student working as a waiter wondered why it took so long to capture Qusair.

"They went in too late; the place is completely destroyed," said the waiter, Ahmed, who, like many others interviewed, declined to provide his last name for security.

On the outskirts of Qusair on Thursday, rebels said they were regrouping and waiting for orders. Bashir Saleh, an activist with the Aleppo-based Al Tawheed Brigade, which had reinforced local fighters in Qusair, said opposition fighters were repositioning themselves outside town and awaiting orders.

"The battle will continue, but with different tactics," declared Saleh.

Fierce fighting between rebels and government troops erupted at another location Thursday, a United Nations-monitored checkpoint near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The checkpoint near the town of Quneitra, Syria's sole crossing into the Golan Heights, was overrun in the morning by rebels but reportedly recaptured a few hours later. Fighting continued in the area and the U.N. described the situation as fluid.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki questioned the Syrian government's ability to reassert military or political control over the entire country.

"We must not lose sight of the significant progress the armed opposition has made over the past two years when faced with tremendously disproportionate force," she said, and events in Qusair were "a significant example of the influx of foreign fighters, the influence of Hezbollah and the impact that has had on the ground in Syria."

Although Hezbollah militants from Lebanon have joined Assad's forces, thousands of foreign fighters from across the Arab world and elsewhere are said to be fighting on the rebel side.

In Damascus, the military appears to have mostly cleared rebels from within city limits. But opposition fighters remain ensconced in nearby suburbs such as Jobar, which is less than a mile from the strategic traffic roundabout at Abaseen Square, one of a number of urban front lines in the capital. The military is present in force at the square and in an adjoining stadium, ready to repel the next rebel advance.

Along certain streets, such as a major thoroughfare leading to the still-embattled Qaboun suburb, soldiers turn back traffic, signaling with their fingers that there is gunfire just ahead. The road is eerily empty and the shells of destroyed buildings can be seen in the distance.

Fighter planes buzzed the capital on Thursday, presumably en route to bombing runs in rebel enclaves.

Some areas, such as the northern suburb of Barzeh, are divided between strips where the army has control, and blocked-off no-go zones where battles still rage. In Barzeh, where the opposition remains strong, the portraits of Assad are scarce and residents were not joining in the celebratory mood about Qusair.

"All the armies in the world cannot stop" the rebels, said a fragrance dealer, who blamed pro-government operatives for the kidnapping of his brother. The man was grabbed from his shop and forced into a car, triggering ongoing ransom negotiations with the family. "Neither side is showing mercy now."

But in Mazzeh Jabal 86, home to many military families, the prevalent mood seemed to be that a turning point had been reached and momentum was in the government's favor. Checkpoints now ring the neighborhood, providing a sense of security.

"Things have gotten much better lately," said a teacher, Alia, 24, who, like others, had relocated to the ramshackle quarter because it was safer than her home district in a still-embattled suburb. "What happened in Qusair is confirmation of this. It could determine the fate of our country."

Down the street, liquor store owner Nissam Fazza, who boasted that he was "more of a Muslim" than the rebels who would ban sales of liquor, said everyone in the neighborhood had been following the course of the battle in Qusair along the Lebanese border.

"Qusair changes everything," said Fazza, who was using Skype on his laptop as he chatted with customers in his cluttered shop featuring bottles of homemade arak — liquor from the government-controlled Latakia region on the Mediterranean coast — as well as choices of tobacco for water pipes. "There's a great sense of relief for all of us."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim in Los Angeles and Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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